For photographers today, social media is an increasingly important part of the job, offering a chance to share work with new audiences and clients across the globe. From hosting live video interviews to building online communities for non-profit projects, photographers' profiles are evolving beyond a picture-perfect feed.
"Social media is the current reality and a way to inform the world," says two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner and National Geographic photographer Muhammed Muheisen. "It's your diary and your portfolio." Muhammed uses his social channels to highlight the impact of conflict – from Palestine to Syria – and in turn effect real change.
Social media is an equally valuable tool for wedding photographer Marina Karpiy, who says she dedicates two hours a day to promoting her work online. Meanwhile, wedding photographer, photojournalist and regular New York Times contributor Tasneem Alsultan – whose work focuses on gender and social issues in her home, Saudi Arabia, and the wider Middle East – experiments with new formats online to better engage with her sizeable following.
Here, Muhammed, Marina and Tasneem share their advice for using social channels to amplify your photography and boost your business.
"Social media is very fast," says Muhammed. "It's like a train and you have to keep pace or you'll spend your whole life catching up. It's the perfect medium to share what I'm doing, why I'm doing it and where I am. When used properly as a professional photographer, it's technically like a wire."
Unlike a news agency wire, though, which shares images with editors, commissioners and colleagues, his social media feeds share his life and work with the world. This visual diary enables him to reach new audiences – but requires constant maintenance. "I use it properly," Muhammed adds. "I feed it – I share pictures, I share stories."
Maintaining a strong presence online requires intensive work. Marina spends at least two hours a day on social media, where she has more than 57k followers on Instagram and more than 18k on Facebook.
"I do not invest money, only labour to ensure the content is useful and interesting," she says. It's a strategy which brings business benefits. "My main clients came to me from Instagram. My audience is people of my generation with families and children, plus clients who stay with me. My followers are also from other countries – they look at my travels in order to catch me somewhere to ask for a photoshoot."
While Muhammed normally stays off his feed, sharing his photographs rather than his face, a behind-the-scenes selfie he filmed in Jordan's ancient city of Petra became one of his best-performing Instagram posts, with 128k views. "People want to know the person behind the camera," he says. "We say 'followers', but some people consider you to be a friend, so it's important to address people personally once in a while to remind them that there is a human behind the lens."
Tasneem is usually found in the field shooting documentary work with her Canon EOS 5D Mark IV and Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L USM lens (now succeeded by the Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM). However, while most people are confined to their homes due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she has started recording live IGTV interviews for her 166k followers.
"I'm not being hired to photograph anything in Saudi," she says. "I am a documentary photographer and always rely on what is happening in front of me to dictate where the story is going. I'm not able to do that right now, but I want to feel like I have some sort of value, so the interviews are therapeutic. I think everyone is finding a way to understand who they are at this moment."
Tasneem has turned to editors, photographers and filmmakers for inspiring one-hour conversations on Instagram Live, which she then edits down to 15-minute videos for IGTV. Her first interview with British filmmaker Josh Allott, who had coronavirus at the time of filming, received 23.4k views, and she has since interviewed photojournalist Smita Sharma and Meghan Petersen, deputy photo director at The Wall Street Journal.
Muhammed's Instagram account, with more than 678k followers, is not his only social media success story. He also founded Everyday Refugees, a non-profit foundation with 179k Instagram followers. For over a decade he has been documenting the refugee crisis across the Middle East, Asia and Europe and engaging with his audiences has been crucial to bringing his work to a wider audience.
"You choose how to use these platforms," he explains. "I started with zero followers and it was the same with Everyday Refugees. It's all about engagement. You need to engage with the people that follow you; it's a community, and people like to be updated and to be a part of the story."
Marina describes Instagram as her diary, but doesn't shoot content specifically for social media, aside from preparing vertical shots for Instagram Stories and choosing 4x5 frames for posts. Photos and videos that merge her own style with real-life moments prove the most popular.
"My family, personal stories about travel and information about life in Georgia all see the highest engagement," says Marina, who has been a pro photographer for 14 years. "Instagram is the story of my life. Family takes first place, so I love to share pictures of them. A photographer is not only a professional, but someone with their own interests. Clients come to me not only because I am talented, but because they are curious to see me offline."
"It's not about having a high number of followers," says Tasneem. "With social media, one day you're high up and the next day you're no one. You can control the consistency and the content – work that encourages people to ask questions and changes their opinions and stereotypes."
Marina, who has a Canon EOS R and a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, often posts behind-the-scenes images from photoshoots, giving viewers a glimpse into her production process. Using the Wi-Fi and direct file sharing capabilities of her cameras also enables immediate sharing. She believes this helps create an authentic image online, which has in turn led to commercial success, as brands know her audience relates to her in a genuine way.
This has proved key when it comes to balancing branded and personal work. "I am also a blogger, with clients such as Nestlé and Lego, so it's a perfect match - I'm a photographer who can take pictures of her children with the product," she says.
All three photographers believe Instagram is currently the most powerful platform for image-makers. "I barely even get a like on my Facebook posts," says Tasneem. "I think it's the algorithm, so I gave up on Facebook a few years ago. Instagram is accessible, and editors can see my work."
"It seems to me that people are gradually moving to Instagram," adds Marina, who doesn't regularly engage with hashtags on the site, but says that evening posts gain more traction. Muhammed tweets and continues to use Facebook, but less so than he once did. "I feel Instagram is 'my platform' because it's all about visuals," he says. "I'm a photographer – this is what I was born to do: share my visuals with the world."
One of the greatest benefits of social media is the opportunity to connect with people you might never have been able to reach offline. For Muhammed, this has led to the success of Everyday Refugees. "Before social media, my work centred on the news community," he says. "When I took a picture, it was seen by my colleagues – now I share information with the world. Behind these accounts, there are decision makers – people who can make a difference. We built a foundation that helps thousands of people. Can you imagine that? It wouldn't have been easy to do before social media."